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Hilburn bio looks beyond the highs and lows of Johnny Cash's history

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Johnny Cash often liked to say he never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Robert Hilburn doesn't, either.

In his excellent biography “Johnny Cash: The Life,” the longtime Los Angeles Times music critic instead uses the facts about the American cultural icon's life to construct a story that's both larger and more fascinating than the legend.

Hilburn doesn't seek to sensationalize or scandalize or demolish the image of Cash that people have because of self-mythologizing music like “The Man in Black” and the “Live at Folsom Prison” album or the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.” Instead, he fills in the gaps between career highlights, giving context and new shape to familiar tales.

Following Cash's history from his childhood in Dyess, Ark., to the creative victory laps of his final years, Hilburn pulls together the threads of Cash's music, career and personal life. He draws on dozens of interviews with the singer, his friends, family and colleagues, as well as earlier books about Cash and memoirs of those close to him.

Hilburn details the creation of landmark recordings such as “Ring of Fire,” “A Boy Named Sue” and Cash's final recordings with producer Rick Rubin.

He re-examines Cash's catalog of more than 70 albums, explaining why 1960's “Ride This Train” was “the first, great concept album” and why so many of the '70s releases failed commercially and aesthetically.

Throughout the book, Hilburn shows how Cash's managers and record labels positioned him as a performer who could appeal not only to country fans but also to rock and folk audiences. Those efforts, from '50s crossovers “I Walk the Line” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” for Memphis' Sun Records to Rubin's American Recordings series, gave Cash widespread credibility that few other country artists have enjoyed.

Hilburn also unravels the singer's complex identities — the boy, born J.R.; John, the man; Johnny, the entertainer; and Cash, the persona that jeopardized all the others.

For instance, June Carter, Cash's wife of 35 years, “called him ‘John' from the start,” Hilburn writes, “switching later to ‘Cash' only in those moments when she wanted to point out to him that he wasn't being himself — when he was high on drugs or on ego.”

Perhaps most impressively, Hilburn reclaims Cash's relationship with Carter from the fairy-tale status it assumed after the two singers died within four months of each other in 2003.

He doesn't shy from describing the pain Cash and Carter inflicted on their families when they began their affair while married to other people.

He also addresses Carter's prescription-drug abuse, often overshadowed by Cash's gargantuan, life-threatening appetite for pills.

At the same time, Hilburn conveys the devotion the couple had for each other, depicting their marriage as the towering achievement it turned out to be.

“Johnny Cash: The Life” ties Cash's triumphs and his famous failures together. Though lesser known, those times make for some of the book's most compelling and humanizing reading.

Ten years after Cash's death, Hilburn has created the definitive narrative of this “symbol of American honor, compassion and struggle.” It's a biography worthy of its subject.

Brian Mansfield is a contributing writer for USA Today.

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